From pulling needles full of dope out of Iggy Pop’s arm just before showtime and helping turn Jim Morrison into a sex symbol (becoming Morrison’s sworn enemy in the process), to unleashing the Ramones upon the world and later becoming one of the globe’s leading music journalists, NYC’s own Danny Fields has been a pivotal figure in nearly five decades of rock ‘n roll history, albeit mostly behind-the-scenes. But filmmaker Brendan Toller aims to give the 70-year-old Fields his due with a behemoth of a new project — the documentary Danny Says.
Along with writer Justin Skrakowski, Toller’s in the middle of crafting the most detailed look to date at Fields’ fascinating life and times — tight pal of Andy Warhol and regular at the Factory; publicist for the Doors; able assistant to Cream and the Velvet Underground; manager of the Ramones, the Stooges, and Lou Reed; discoverer of the MC5, Allman Brothers, Modern Lovers, Nico, Loudon Wainwright and myriad others; close friend, collaborator and biographer of Linda McCartney; and more.
“I would say he’s definitely aware of his influence and what his taste has done for the culture at large, but in terms of taking credit for it, I don’t think he was ever one to pride himself on the backs of artists,” says Toller. “But he’s a giant, and he’s just this great character, so I think it’s a story worth telling.
A 26-year-old graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, Toller’s a “tot” — as Fields likes to call him, Toller laughs — but he’s already got one documentary under his belt: 2008’s I Need That Record!, about the decline of independent record stores around the U.S., which featured Ian MacKaye, Thurston Moore, Noam Chomsky, and others (made on a budget of about $10,000, it was his senior thesis project; you can peep it on Netflix Instant). Toller met and interviewed Fields during the making of that film — introductions were made by the grandmother of his then-girlfriend, photographer Ariel Rosenbloom — though Fields’ clips ended up on the cutting room floor.
“But I was fascinated with him and we talked about so much stuff,” Toller recalls, “and afterwards I kept hearing from mutual friends that ‘Danny’s kind of upset that you haven’t been in touch….’ I was like, what? So I emailed him and we developed this friendship where every time I would travel from Western Mass to New York, I’d hang out with him. Then I moved to Brooklyn and I said to him, ‘If you ever need any help with a memoir or, God forbid, a documentary, I’d love to just help,’ and he said ‘Yeah, let’s get started.’ It’s something people have been trying to get him to do for 30 years, so it’s pretty incredible.”
Fields opened his impressive Rolodex to Toller and hooked him up with the 60-plus people who’ve sat in front of the camera over the past three years–a group that includes Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, Tommy Ramone, Judy Collins, Jonathan Richman, and Loudon and Rufus Wainwright.
But Fields has otherwise been entirely hands-off, says Toller. “He was always worried that he was gonna be really impossible to work with, but he hasn’t. He’s not at all peeking over my shoulder in the editing room. He wants people to speak truthfully about him. He’s told people this. People have called him [prior to Toller’s on-camera interviews] and asked him, ‘What can I mention?’ And he says, ‘Tell them everything, I’m not watching any of this, I’m not editing it, that’s their job, I wanna be out of this.”
Toller’s so far gotten over 250 hours of footage from his interviews with Fields and others — in addition to digitizing exclusive photos and video from Fields’ own archives — and says it’s been a fun, surreal experience. Collins told him about talking Fields down from one of his first acid trips while hanging out at a hotel with Leonard Cohen, and both Iggy and Stooges drummer Scott Asheton recalled how Fields quit on them after Asheton drove a 14-foot U-Haul truck under a 13-foot underpass, shearing the top off the vehicle and ruining yet another drug-addled tour.
And just the act of talking with some of his own heroes has been a thrill. “It was crazy for me to be able to go to Iggy’s office-abode in Miami,” says Toller. “I asked him right before the interview, ‘I have to go to the bathroom, where do I go?’ and he goes, ‘Ehh, just pee in the bushes.’ I was like, wow, I peed in Iggy’s bushes! He was really, really gracious and open, and you could tell that Danny really helped his entrance into New York and, for lack of a better word, show business. He says that the Stooges owe a lot to Danny.”
“Early in my friendship [with Danny] I was nervous to ask him, like, ‘Let me hear your crazy Iggy stories’ or ‘I heard you and Jim [Morrison] hated each other?’ But he’s totally open to it,” Toller continues.
“Danny sort of summed up the Morrison thing on film — you know the famous picture that Joel Brodksy took, the one where [Morrison’s] shirtless with the necklace? Danny was there at the shoot and he says, ‘That picture sort of entrapped him because how can anyone look that great ever again?’ Jim wanted to be known as a poet and for his performances, and Danny’s whole thing with the Doors was promoting the image of Jim as this wild new sex symbol that the world had never seen, so that was reason to not get along. There were other escapades, too, like Danny taking Jim’s car keys away because he was too stoned or drunk. They did not like one another, and Danny swears that when he went to go console Morrison’s widow, Pamela, that there was a dog jumping on Danny and Pamela said, ‘The dog! It’s got something to say! It’s Jim [reincarnated]!’ and then the dog puked all over Danny’s lap. So he was like, ‘Yep, it’s Jim.'”
Fields being so hands-off the project includes the financial end, as well. So Toller — like so many other creatives these days — has turned to Kickstarter to generate $20,000 to put together a 20-minute sample cut to shop around for finishing funds. “I hate this part of the job, asking people for money,” says Toller, noting that the Kickstarter cash will go to hiring an additional editor and people to do motion graphics and animation “to give you a break from all the talking heads.” He figures the final budget for Danny Says might extend into six figures, with a big chunk of that going toward licensing fees for all the music in the film.
He also thinks the film could turn out to be significantly longer than your average 90-minute feature. “There’s just so much stuff there. You can’t really tell Danny’s story without telling the story of, say, the MC5. To understand where Danny was coming from with some of those bands, you have to understand certain details and certain stories why they didn’t make it big or why he quit as manager.”
“I also don’t want it to be a Gone With the Wind, that’s like five hours,” he laughs. “So we’ll have to see what it ends up as.”
However it turns out, he’s still not sure Fields himself will ever watch it. “He was originally telling everyone that this film wouldn’t come out until he was dead, that was the stipulation,” Toller says. “Now he’s receptive to the idea that it’ll come out when he’s still with us, but he was like, ‘I think I’m just gonna stand across the street and watch people come out of the theater. Maybe I’ll see it someday.'”